Sunday, March 29, 2020

Life and Work in a Time of COVID-19: A Slow Motion Emergency

I'm writing about something that needs no introduction.  Something known from Bhutan to Belize (two cases each), from the Faroe Islands to Fiji (80 and five cases, respectively), and from the United States with over 100 thousand to El Salvador clocking in at 19 cases.  I offer one person's view of this slow-motion global disaster, both the personal and - to the extent possible - the professional perspective as a Foreign Service Officer. I see this in slow-motion because it's not an earthquake or a volcanic eruption that hits without warning, does its damage and the rest is all aftermath.  Instead, this emergency is coming, coming, now closer, now worse, closer still, worse still, encroaching, still continuing and we don't know if it's about to blow up or blow over. 

View From El Salvador

36 Days Ago

Although it feels like a different life ago, really it's been just over a month since I picked up our good friend from the San Salvador airport for a short visit. Prior to leaving the airport, nurses from the Ministry of Health checked our temperatures with a shot to the forehead and we chuckled at the novelty. Over the next five days, my husband and I showed off our favorite spots and ventured into new territory.  The day she arrived COVID-19 had just broken out in Italy and there were no reported cases local transmission in the United States.  Given that setting, it didn't seem irresponsible for her to take an international trip.  Yes, the storm was looming on the horizon, but the first drops hadn't yet hit the Central American windshield. 

Life in normal times - El Zonte Beach

Daily commuters leaving the coffee hill town Concepcion de Ataco.

When school was still open: boys goofing around in Nahuizalco. 
31 Days Ago
I take our friend to the airport and she heads back to the Bay Area. Life continues as normal here. My husband and I can still go to local stores and easily find supplies of sanitizing hand gel, which have now hit the black market in the U.S. We pick up a few bottles, just in case. 

Meanwhile, the first COVID-19 death and first case of local transmission are reported in the U.S. 

26 Days Ago
Less than a week after our friend left, I fly to Southern California for a work conference. It's a gathering of consular officers from around the globe meeting with US-based agencies to discuss the soup-to-nuts processing of H-2 temporary worker visas.  These are the visas for workers supporting all sectors of the U.S. agricultural industry and a good chunk of the tourist, landscaping, moving and (oddly) ice cream truck businesses. On the first day of the workshop, I raise my hand to ask a speaker from Washington, DC if the Department is predicting interruptions in processing or admitting these critical workers due to the viral outbreak.  We discuss preventative health measures our sections should be taking, but at that time Presidential Proclamations had only banned entry to the U.S. from travelers recently in China and Iran - not countries known for H-2 workers. There are pump bottles of hand sanitizer on each table in the conference room, yet undeterred, I fill a notebook with ideas I want to implement when I return to work. 

On my return flight to El Salvador, in addition to the usual customs declaration form we all fill out on our tray tables, we are also asked to report all countries we've visited in the previous two weeks.  By that time, Italy and Spain had been identified as hot spots and Salvadoran President Bukele institutes a mandatory 30-day quarantine for all travelers entering from these two European countries, plus China, Iran and South Korea. The country is still open for business to American arrivals.

El Salvador goes to Yellow Alert as COVID-19 reaches 86 countries and 2,241 new cases are reported in the last 24 hours. There are no reported cases in El Salvador. 

Sunrise over the volcanoes. All is quiet and calm.
19 Days Ago
Back at work on Monday, my coworker and I have a long talk about a regional workshop we've been planning since last Fall. An annual event, 2020 is San Salvador's turn to host and it has been penciled onto our calendars for late May. We begin talking to our invited presenters who are concerned about their ability to come as their agencies are starting to issue travel restrictions.  We look each other straight in the eye, relying on each other for some type of crystal ball insider information, and ask the things like, "Well really, how long do we think this COULD last?"  

17 Days Ago
While my colleague and I are reluctant to let all our workshop preparations go for naught, by Wednesday it's clear that the situation is only worsening. We pull the plug, postponing the event until July.  Although unspoken, I'm sure that even then we believed this date to be ambitious. Later, in a staff meeting, I mention that my throat is a bit sore. Perhaps I wouldn't be in tomorrow?  A subsequent sneeze is met with utter silence in the room as behind their widened eyes, my coworkers start doing the incubation math given my recent U.S. trip. 

The WHO declares the outbreak a pandemic.  

President Trump bans all travel to the U.S. from 26 European countries. 

End-of-days shopping frenzy puts toilet paper on the Most Wanted List in the U.S. 

El Salvador goes to Orange Alert as COVID-19 reaches 109 countries and 4,025 new cases are reported in the last 24 hours. All classes are cancelled and schools closed. There are still no reported cases in El Salvador. 

16 Days Ago
I stay at home with a sinus infection/minor cold.  I swear!

15 Days Ago
Friday the 13th and a U.S. national emergency is declared. 

The term "social distancing" enters common parlance and we hear it translated into Spanish, too (distanciamiento social). 

Our consular section creates plans to uphold sanitary precautions and maintain social distancing among the hundreds of visa applicants we receive daily. 

El Salvador goes to Red Alert even with still no confirmed cases in country. In a televised statement in front of his cabinet, President Bukele requests a "state of exception" to suspend portions of the Salvadoran Constitution relating to freedom of movement and gathering. He implements "extraordinary measures" to protect the population from what he sees as a "high probability" of the virus affecting the country. Borders are closed to foreign travelers, and Salvadoran citizens, residents and members of the diplomatic corps are allowed to enter only via mandatory government quarantine. This begins to affect the embassy community as more than a handful of employees and/or family members are caught off-guard by the declaration while outside the country.  Sporting events are cancelled as are all gatherings of more than 200 people.  All public transportation is privately owned and the government urges sanitation measures to keep passengers safe.  I'm doubtful of the utility of this measure as people travel jam-packed in second-hand school buses, vans and pick-up trucks like cattle and cord wood

Still home sick from work (it's just a sinus infection/minor cold!).

We pay our once-a-week housekeeper for two weeks in advance and tell her to stay home so she'll avoid the lengthy trip on public buses. 

14 Days Ago
President Bukele further restricts gatherings to no more than 75 people. 

The State Department offers Authorized Departure to U.S. personnel and family members from any diplomatic or consular post in the WORLD who have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.  We start to lose embassy personnel.

Via text messages, our consular management team discusses visa appointments: do we keep them or cancel them? We decide to stay open Monday and see how things are going with our new procedures.  

12 Days Ago
President Bukele announces that all pregnant women, those over 60 years old, and anyone with underlying health conditions should immediately leave work and stay home until... this is over? We have two coworkers over 60 who pack up and leave work by the noon deadline. Such a hasty goodbye, it feels like we're setting them onto an ice floe.

11 Days Ago
St. Patrick's Day Parade in NYC is cancelled - now you know it's getting serious. 

President Bukele gives another televised statement in front of his summoned cabinet. These events have become Must-See TV for the nation as we all wait with baited breath for the next bomb to drop.  We expect him to announce that flights from the U.S. are now suspended as all 50 states are now affected when news of a confirmed case in the last hold-out state of West Virginia is reported. 

We are wrong. 

He closes the airport for 15 days to ALL flights in or out of the country as of midnight, March 18th.  There are two flights yet to depart for the U.S. that afternoon, but with a Salvadoran-based crew, they can't guarantee they'll return before the deadline and may turn into pumpkins and be stranded in the U.S. The flights are cancelled, thus stranding travelers with flights transiting through El Salvador - a Central American hub for one airline. The phones start to ring off the hook in the American Citizen Services (ACS) section of the embassy. 

10 Days Ago
Just as we got the social-distancing and sanitation measures working in our section, the Department suspends all routine visa processing worldwide. Boom. As we were warned at the start of our careers: in an emergency, we all become ACS officers.  

The volume of calls from American citizens overwhelms the switchboard and we set up a call center.  This, I find, is a rather fitting task for my Salvadoran colleagues as many of them started their careers in call centers here and with their excellent English skills, were later hired at the embassy. (Think of us when you hear: "Para Espanol, oprima dos" next time you're ordering flowers online.)

While China has its first day of no new reported cases, the daily death toll in Italy hits a new high. 

And in another televised speech, President Bukele announces what we've all been waiting for - the first confirmed case of COVID-19 has reached El Salvador.  We're told the infected person had recently traveled to Italy, but with no official record of his re-entry to El Salvador, authorities conclude that he landed elsewhere after the quarantine was instituted and crossed a land border through a "blind spot." 
Thanks, jerk.

On a related note, Salvadorans smile with pride to hear that for the first time in history, the coyotes are smuggling people INTO El Salvador. Word on the street is that the going rate is $100.

9 Days Ago
Nearly all US states declare states of emergency and NYC is declared the U.S. epicenter. 

7 Days Ago 
Another Bukele declaration comes down: mandatory 30-day quarantine for everyone. Exceptions are made for critical work sectors, but with an enormous swath of the population working in the informal economy, this news is very hard to take.  We're directed to only leave our houses to go to work, a pharmacy or the grocery store and police checkpoints will enforce this. Our local embassy staff receive letters to travel to work through the checkpoints and we're told to only drive in our diplomatic plated cars and carry our credentials. 

We put staff into two alternating teams of in-person and teleworking to limit the number of warm bodies in the embassy. Upon realizing they're on opposite teams and might not see each other for who-knows-how-long, some of my crew gets teary and breaks social distancing rules to hug each other goodbye. 

With the airport closed, nobody knows if our mail shipments will be able to arrive.  That might sound like a silly first-world complaint, I recognize that, but given we rely on imported cat food - it's concerning.  Sadly, El Salvador is not an overwhelmingly cat-friendly country.  It's not like they hate them, but you might be lead to that conclusion after seeing the one brand of cat food in the grocery store and only super-expensive prescription stuff in the vet clinics. I begin to mark the calendar with milestones: "two weeks of food left, one week of food left" and start to ration the kitties' food. 

This Past Week
...has been a blur. With the entire embassy engaged in Mission Priority #1 - helping U.S. citizens, we've been able to all pull in one direction and get some impressive things done. To start, today will be our fifth arranged repatriation flight, quite a diplomatic feat given the closed airport. We've made and taken untold thousands of calls from U.S. citizens and permanent residents wanting to get back home. We've set up web pages for information, created flight manifests, and sent out emergency MASCOT messages to the U.S. citizen community.  

Ten days after the first case broke, there are now 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, all of whom caught it abroad and except for the guy who snuck across the border - they were stopped upon entry and put into quarantine. 

As for daily life, it's no longer a novelty but a normalcy to have our temperature taken before entering the grocery store, which we can only do in controlled numbers and one per family.  We buy groceries not in a hoarding fashion, but with an eye of "what will keep longest if this is the last time I'm let out of the house?" Canned tuna and pasta are looking really good about now. 

Oh, and local press reports that the gangs have announced a suspension of extortion payments due to the state of emergency.  They're just doin' their part to help the community.

Not your wallet sir, just your temperature.

Civilized shoppers wait to enter PriceSmart. One person per family.
Given the shortage of masks, and a social norm to wear one, my husband makes his own following - you guessed it - a YouTube video.  While I couldn't stop chuckling, they're quite ingenious. 

Necessity is the mother of invention.
The State Department's Consular Affairs bureau spends an incredible amount of brain power imagining and preparing for every different permutation of disaster that could hit any area on the globe. Earthquakes, hurricanes, civil unrest, terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions, droughts, and floods - you name it, Consular Affairs has worked through a plan to handle it.  But did anyone, maybe that one person in the meeting who says oddball things, ever raise their hand and propose, "You know, we should make an emergency plan for a pandemic that strikes every one of our diplomatic missions simultaneously, including headquarters..."  Each day we're breaking new ground.

Watching my colleagues, whether local staff, employed family members, fellow officers, or managers, with each of their particular strengths suddenly shining through, has been the most encouraging and amazing part of this all. It reminds me that given the opportunity, we all rise to the challenge. While these are not to be compared to what we're seeing from medical professionals in urban hot spots, these acts are nonetheless bright spots here and worthy of recognition. Some of my favorite examples so far:
  • The quiet, serious woman who takes fingerprints each morning at the visa window, now wearing her Wonder Woman hair bow, coming alive at the airport to take charge of boarding a full flight of repatriation passengers.
  • A first-tour officer in daily negotiation with airlines to arrange possible flights.
  • The team of teleworking local staff fielding calls on their home phones of occasionally irate and understandably frustrated U.S. citizens.
  • The Korean-American second-tour officer who personally arranged the evacuation of the local Korean diplomatic corps using his "kitchen Korean."
  • The CBP agent posted to the San Salvador airport filling out the pre-flight forms for an elderly man weakened by the heat.
  • And certainly our tireless American Citizen Services staff who've been on the clock since this all began. 
CBP officer completing paperwork for an evacuation passenger.

Embassy flight team arrive at the closed airport.

Embassy evacuation flight team checking in passengers. 

Finally, watching the Salvadorans respond to this crisis is also heartening.  Instead of a dog-eat-dog atmosphere, there's a practical, cooperative and civilized feel in the air. My husband and I watch American news channels and believe we're actually safer here, for the time being. But as I said in the start - we still don't know if this will blow over or blow up.  This is a small country of limited resources and for as much as I applaud the strong preventative measures taken for the greater good - we could reach a tipping point where desperation causes civilized behavior to collapse. 

As with everything, only time will tell. 

PS in the time it took to write this, the number of cases here has risen from 19 to 24, with two local transmission cases and 22 imported from the U.S., Europe or Panama.